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Army doctors "grew" new ear for soldier in her forearm

Army surgeons have successfully transplanted a new ear on a soldier who lost her left ear in a car accident. The procedure, a first of its kind in the Army, involved harvesting cartilage from the soldier's ribs to carve out a replacement, which was then placed under the skin of the forearm to allow the ear to grow.

In 2016 Shamika Burrage was returning to Fort Bliss, Texas, after visiting family in Mississippi when her tire blew out. The vehicle skidded 700 feet before flipping several times and ejecting Burrage. Her cousin, who was eight months pregnant at the time, only suffered minor injuries. But the accident left Burrage with head injuries, fractures in her spine, and the total loss of her left ear.

"I was on the ground, I just looked up and (my cousin) was right there. Then I remember people walking up to us, asking if we were okay and then I blacked out," Burrage said on the U.S. Army's website. The 21-year-old private's next memory was waking up in a hospital.

Doctors later told her that if medical treatment had been delayed for 30 more minutes, she would have bled to death. After several months of rehabilitation, she began counseling for the emotional trauma caused by the accident, including its effects on her appearance.

"I didn't feel comfortable with the way I looked so the provider referred me to plastic surgery," she said.

That's where Lt. Col. Owen Johnson III, chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at William Beaumont Army Medical Center, stepped in. He presented the option of a total ear reconstruction.

At first, Burrage was hesitant when she learned what that would entail.

"I didn't want to do (the reconstruction) but gave it some thought and came to the conclusion that it could be a good thing," she said. "I was going to go with the prosthetic, to avoid more scarring, but I wanted a real ear. I was just scared at first but wanted to see what he could do."

The procedure involved placing the new "ear" created from her cartilage into Burrage's forearm to allow for the formation of new blood vessels. This will enable her to having feeling in her ear once the rehabilitation process is complete. 

"(The ear) will have fresh arteries, fresh veins and even a fresh nerve so she'll be able to feel it," Johnson said on the U.S. Army's website. "The whole goal is by the time she's done with all this, it looks good, it's sensate, and in five years if somebody doesn't know her they won't notice."

He reopened Burrage's ear canal, which had closed up due to the trauma, and she has not lost any hearing ability.

Surgeons at Johns Hopkins performed a similar surgery in 2012 after a woman lost part of her ear to an aggressive form of cancer. Doctors there successfully stitched together a new ear for Sherrie Walters, grew it under the skin of her forearm, and later surgically attached the ear and its blood vessels.

"It just didn't seem like anything we'd ever heard of so to see the progression and to see how everything has come out has been just great to kind of come to fruition," Walters told CBS Baltimore at the time.

As for Burrage, she has two more surgeries left and says she is feeling optimistic about her future.

"It's been a long process for everything, but I'm back," she said.